What's the psychological impact of buying less?

Sharon Stephenson wrote this great article for Stuff about kiwis trying different versions of buying less, spending less and having less belongings. I was one of the people interviewed. I’ve reproduced the text below in case it changes at the link.

The 'buy nothing' year: Jumping off the consumer bandwagon

It was the white shirt that did it – a pretty cotton number almost identical to the five other white shirts hanging in my wardrobe.

But it was on sale, I was on holiday and, dammit, I'd worked hard for the money. So I swiped the square of plastic, feeling a rush of pleasure. Which was almost immediately followed by remorse: not only was it a waste of money I didn't have, it was also the first time in six months I'd fallen off the buy-nothing wagon.

Some context: I used to work in an office where I numbed my unhappiness with lunchtime trips to the shops. My 'hoard-robe', as my husband called it, was heaving. Fortunately, a few years ago I started working from home, where I gladly embraced the uniform of track pants and Ugg boots.

Last year, I moved to a six-hectare lifestyle block, where I no longer needed seven black trousers or the alarming number of cocktail dresses I'd somehow accumulated.

The global 'no buy' movement is gaining momentum.

After the sort of cull Japanese de-cluttering expert Marie Kondo would be proud of, I resolved to buy no clothes or shoes unless I absolutely had to. 

And, aside from that one white shirt, it's going well. I don't miss shopping or the time, energy and disposable income it sucked from my life.

Even better, my shopping ban has made me more conscious about my general spending behaviour, encouraging me to make do with what I've got and, if I really need something, to search out second-hand alternatives. Who knew resisting society's constant pressure to buy-buy-buy would spark so much joy?

Lots of people, it turns out. Over the past few years, various movements have sprung up around the globe encouraging people to put away their wallets for 24 hours, such as Buy Nothing Day (November 29 this year), a global celebration of living lightly which started as an anti-consumer protest against the Black Friday sales and gained momentum during the Occupy movement.

Or for longer: the Buy Nothing Project, which started in the US and has since expanded to more than 450,000 members in 18 countries, including New Zealand. This "collective against consumerism" taps into the gift economy as members trade items, time and services from their neighbours without exchanging cash.

Psychologist Nadine Isler says 'retail therapy' can be more harmful than therapeutic.

Auckland psychologist Nadine Isler says people instigate shopping bans for a number of reasons, from saving money and decreasing their environmental footprint to learning to live with less and ending their dependence on consumer culture.

"Evidence suggests the old notion of 'retail therapy' can be more harmful than therapeutic when used to excess, causing people to go into debt and develop spending addictions that leave them still feeling unsatisfied, so they have to spend even more," says Isler.

For some, the antidote could be following the teachings of Kondo to evaluate belongings and keeping only those that bring joy. Or taking on the no-buy challenge.

"Buying nothing can be a way of gaining control, of choosing to be more mindful about spending and can have other benefits, such as saving time and money and breaking the habit of immediate gratification," says Isler. "People might also become more creative, finding ways to make do with what they already have or making things themselves."

Changing shopping behaviours might not come easily to some, particularly those with a hoarding disorder, but Isler says going the no-buy route can be a positive step. "It all depends on your motivation. If you're doing it for environmental reasons or acting in accordance with your values by taking a stand against consumer culture, or simply because you want to understand yourself and your habits better, then that's likely to lead to positive change.

"But if you don't have the means to make discretionary purchases or are anxious about visiting the shops, then it's unlikely to be so positive."

Your Weekend spoke to three people who have taken on the buy nothing challenge to find out how they did it.

Thrill of the chase

 Suzanne McFadden can't wait to show me the $2 T-shirt she bought from the Wānaka tip shop.

"It's one of my favourite items of clothing," says the editor of the women's sports website LockerRoom, who admits she comes from a long line of bargain hunters.

"I love the thrill of getting a bargain but I was spending far too much time and money doing that. I would look through my wardrobe and go, why did I buy that or why haven't I ever worn that?"

Inspired by a friend who tried to buy only second-hand items for a year, McFadden decided to go one better and buy nothing but essentials for the year. "I'm not normally one for making New Year's resolutions, but I decided that 2018 was going to be the year I put away the credit card. Fortunately, my neighbour joined me to keep me honest."

The only thing the pair could buy was essentials – underwear and activewear – and, if they really needed something, could buy it second hand.

"I go to a lot of sports awards so was a little worried I'd have nothing to wear. But I reached into the back of my wardrobe and found dresses I hadn't worn in ages and gave them a second chance, getting creative by pairing them with different accessories to change the look."

For the NZ Television Awards, McFadden bought a lace dress for $27.50 from an op shop and was showered with compliments all night.

Although not a fan of Kondo, McFadden does understand the concept of letting items go.

"Buying nothing new for a year has definitely made me more mindful about spending. After the year finished, I bought a new dress to go on holiday and didn't enjoy it as much as I previously had, which is why I'm going to continue either buying nothing or buying second hand if I have to. My new rule is, do I love an item and will I love it for a long time, and if the answer is no, then I walk away."

Kaitaia dairy farmer Lyn Webster spent less than $1000 at the supermarket last year.

Slashing supermarket shopping

February 2010 didn't start well for Lyn Webster. When the Kaitāia dairy farmer and single mother asked her bank for money to buy more cows for the 110ha farm she leases, they laughed at her.

"It was the middle of the GFC and things were tight," says the 52-year-old. "I realised the only way I could improve my financial situation  was to cut down my spending."  

It wasn't clothing or handbags the mother-of-two was splashing out on but groceries. "When I crunched the numbers I was horrified at how much I spent at the supermarket. I'd buy whatever I wanted, without even looking at prices."

Never one to do things by halves, Webster immediately imposed a shopping limit of $100 a week or less. And visited her local library to research ways to make most of her limited resources. 

"I realised I could use baking soda to wash my hair, brush my teeth and make cleaning products. What's more, a $25 tub of baking soda could last me almost a year."

It is fashionable to have fewer, better quality belongings.

Getting off the exhausting consumer roller coaster also meant making her own bread, cheese and yoghurt, as well as growing her own veges.

"I would ask myself, do I really need it, can I make it myself or can I get it in another way, such as buying it second hand? It got to the stage where the only things I had to buy were toilet paper, fly spray, razors and batteries."

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Documenting her buy-nothing exploits earned her a sizeable following on social media which led to a regular column, initially in the Taranaki Daily News and then the Waikato Times and, eventually, a book deal (her 175-page anthem to making do and mending, Pig Tits and Parsley Sauce, was published in 2013).

Last year Webster took on the self-imposed challenge of spending less than $1000 a year at the supermarket. She finished the year with $12 to spare. This year, she's set herself the challenge of  staying away from the supermarket completely. The money she's saving is being put towards "experiences, rather than things", such as tickets to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers this month.    

"Of course there are things I miss, such as wine, chocolate and bacon but if I really wanted them, I'd go and buy them. To me, it's about saving, making and doing.

"I'd rather make my own shampoo than spend $10 on a bottle of stuff that's mainly water that marketers have convinced people is essential. It's not. It took me 25 years to realise that but you don't have to give in to the pressure to buy."

More and more people are embarking on 'no buys', in which they severely restrict their spending.

Saving thousands

It began as a way to save money after a holiday battered Amanda Main's bank account, but when the Wellington mother of two got to thinking about the environmental impact of our consumer culture, she chose to opt out of buying new for a year.

"I've always been eco-conscious,  - I've never bought bottled water and  have used reusable shopping bags for more than 15 years," says the graphic/web designer. "Once, we bought some cheaper ottomans that quickly ended up in the landfill and that didn't sit well with me, or the fact that people are often required to work in terrible conditions so that we can have cheap goods.

"I vowed not to buy anything like that again, instead opting for better quality items that could at least be repaired or reupholstered."

By not spending money on cheaper things over a longer period of time, Main reasoned, she would be able to buy better quality.

Main turned her back on shopping in October 2017 and although she found it easy in the beginning, by the end of the year she missed the excitement. "But then new things are only new for so long and you'll soon want something else.

"I've learned to make do with what I have – if it's functional, why replace it? When it comes to buying things for the house I try to question need versus want and consider the 'end of life' for that item. What's it made of? Can it be repaired, donated, recycled/upcycled?"

For example, when her blender broke, Main found a replacement part at the tip shop for $7.

She estimates she saved around $2000 during the year, as well as time not browsing online. "I did, though, have trouble deciding what to wear in the morning as nothing excited me. It can be a bit depressing wearing the same thing day in, day out."

Not that Main was tempted to splurge when the year ended. "I bought a couple of picture frames and put together a list of the clothes I needed, such as a good winter coat, and I've gone out to find each item, rather than just go shopping with no particular focus. The year definitely taught me to think about what I buy and that's got to be a good thing."